Liberia: Why Liberia May Not Recover Seized Stolen Assets Forfeited in the UK

opinion

Monrovia — On May 23rd, 2020, the Liberian government through Solicitor Cyrennius Cephus designated two UK based international forensic auditors, financial investigators and prosecutors, namely, Adeste Advisory Group and Grant Thornton to investigate, recover procure and repatriate Stolen Assets, irrespective of where they are hidden.

The instruction came more than a month after the National Crimes Agency in the United Kingdom wrapped up its investigation and came to the conclusion that it would forfeit an amount of US$8million(approx £6.4 million) linked to a Liberian business account in the 1970s, the period when President William V.S. Tubman and his successor, William R. Tolbert were at the helm of power.

According to the NCA, its investigation began when Commerzbank AG London approached the National Economic Crime Centre after noticing unusual activity on an account held by a Liberian company called 'The Albatross Limited'.

The bank account had been internally investigated and suspended after an individual had tried to set up a new account and move the money, explaining that it was to be paid to various charities. Since then, no one had attempted to touch the money.

The company behind the account was incorporated in Liberia, West Africa, in the 1970s and was purportedly set up to operate large container ships for an international shipping company," the statement said.

The NCA, on 8 April 2020, issued a Notice of Forfeiture on the account's balance of $8 million dollars (approx £6.4 million), which investigators argued was part of a fund operated for the purpose of tax evasion, money laundering, bribery and corruption.

The NCA leads the UK's fight to cut serious and organised crime, protecting the public by targeting and pursuing those criminals who pose the greatest risk to the UK.

GOL Gives Authority to Recoup $8M

In the communication, granting the two British firm authority to recoup Liberia's stolen assets, now in possession of FrontPageAfrica, SG Cephus wrote:

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission has launched an investigation along with the Financial Intelligence Unit(FIU) for tax evasion and fraud and economic sabotage. That being the case, Albatross Limited is on the wanted list of the Liberian government as a criminal enterprise and economic saboteur.

Therefore, as part of the Government's fight against corruption and our policy of zero tolerance on money laundering activities, tax evasion, tax frauds and economic sabotage, the GOL considers itself a victim of money laundering activities that are connected to the Company and TAL that took place in Liberia, and sees the over 6.4 million British Pounds as its legitimate property.

We recognize that a recent freezing order by a Westminster court confirms that these proceeds of crime have been laundered, through major financial services institutions in London, into the British banking system. We also note that the money is now with the ncA under the application of an Assets Forfeiture Order.

We note that the same Westminster court has granted a freezing order on the money and that the proceed of crime has since been forfeited to the NCA after its enforcer's application to seize the money was approved by the court.

We would like to point out that the money was squandered by criminals that are connected to the Company and TAL, through dubious processes of tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, economic sabotage and corruption, and therefore demands its retrieval and subsequent repatriation to the Treasury of the GOL.

It is with regards to these developments and based on the relevant provisions of your respective contracts to investigate, to recover to procure and repatriate Stolen Assets, irrespective of where they are hidden, where are proceeds of illicit activities in Liberia that the Government hereby instructs Adeste Advisory Limited and Grant Thornton UK, LLP to work with the Director of the National Economic Crime Center at the NCA, Ms. Sara Pritchard, to ensure that the money is appropriately tracked down and returned to the Treasury of Liberia.

It is important to reiterate and again assure you as your partners in the "war on corruption" that the money would be used for national development purposes, that includes road construction, the building of schools, clinics and the provision of other basic services to rural Liberians, which are in line with the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development(PAPD) on poverty reduction, as enunciated by His Excellency, George Manneh Weah, President of the Republic of Liberia.

Finally, let me reiterate that your operations have been placed under the authority of the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission and its chair, Cllr. Ndubuisi Nwadubuke, as well as the Liberia Financial Intelligence Unit(FIU) and its head, Edwin Harris. Therefore you are advised to liaise with these two agencies on any matters that may arise now or during the course of your investigation as you earnestly endeavor to retrieve and repatriate the aforesaid money.

That being the case, the Liberia Financial Intelligence Unit on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Liberia(thereafter known as "the GOL" or Government of Liberia, we present our compliments to you.

In keeping with the relevant actions of your respective contracts with the GOL, in 2019, this letter is to formally instruct you, as before, for and on behalf of the Government of Liberia, to investigate, retrieve and repatriate to the Treasury of the GOL, the amount of 6.4 million British Pounds(the "proceeds of crime" or "the money" being illicit cash that was seized by the National Crime Agency("the NCA") of the United Kingdom.

We understand that the money was previously held in a Citibank account by criminals who falsely claimed to be running an African shipping company("the company"). The Citi Bank account ("the account") was set up in the name of a Liberian registered corporate entity called the Albatross Limited("the TAL") and had been inherited by the Commerzbank following a takeover.

Weah Sets up Team to Recoup

In reiterating his commitment to fight corruption, President Weah, late last year, emphasized his intent to recover millions of United States Dollars siphoned from state coffers and treasured abroad by unscrupulous Liberians.

During his inaugural address and since, the Liberian Leader has repeatedly expressed his political will to fight corruption, which he describes as a pandemic crippling the growth and development of the Country and its people.

In this regard, the President set up the Asset Investigation, Restitution and Recovery Team (AIRReT) to catalyze the fight against corruption.

In a meeting last August with officials of Grant Thornton, the President reaffirmed his burning desire to uncompromisingly fight corruption and those who practice it. "I want to make sure that money stolen, laundered and smuggled out of this country is recovered and brought back to Liberia," he averred, adding that Liberia has so much resources to improve the living standard of all its people but this is hampered by corruption. I made a promise and will keep it," he said further. "My fight against corruption is not a witch hunt but a commitment to develop Liberia with its own resources and monies that were stolen from the Country."

The Obstacles to Recouping Millions

A FrontPageAfrica investigation has further uncovered that intense behind the scenes negotiations are ongoing between the Liberian government and the NCA to find a way to return the money to Liberia.

However, one senior official acknowledged to FPA that a lot of obstacles are standing in the way of that becoming a reality.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the ongoing negotiations said Liberia would only get the money if it can prove that it is connected to crimes.

At the time the money was deposited, President Tubman was President. He died at a clinic in London following post-operative complications from prostate gland surgery in July 1971, at the age of 75. He was succeeded by his long-time Vice President, William R. Tolbert, who was overthrown in a bloody coup d'etat, nearly nine years later, which brought Master Sargeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and the People's Redemption Council to power.

More than 40 years after the deposit was made, the signatories who open the account are unknown and the NCA is declining to make the names public.

Kerri Fitzpatrick, Communications Officer at the National Crime Agency told FrontPageAfrica via email Tuesday he was unable to reveal the names on the account. "I'm not able to disclose the names in this instance and can only offer what's in the press release," Fitzpatrick said.

What is known however, is that the money did originate from Liberia. In his letter granting the two British firm instructions, SG Cephus said: "We understand that the money was previously held in a Citibank account by criminals who falsely claimed to be running an African shipping company("the company"). The Citi Bank account ("the account") was set up in the name of a Liberian registered corporate entity called the Albatross Limited("the TAL") and had been inherited by the Commerzbank following a takeover."

Further investigation by FrontPageAfrica has found that bogus company was actually created in 1976 under the maritime and corporate registry, which was managed exclusively by the International Trust Company(ITC) and the president.

All of the key officials in the government at the time are either dead or ailing, except for two, Emmanuel Shaw. And Dr. Charles Clarke. Edwin Williams was Finance Minister in 1976 while C. Cecil Dennis was Foreign Minister, and Ambassador Francis Dennis was Ambassador to the US. Shaw, worked with Dr. Clarke who was Minister of State Without Portfolio.

Williams, who served first as Deputy Minister of Finance and later Finance Minister under Tolbert and succeeded Steve Tolbert, following his crash in 1975, died in April 2013. Ironically, Williams resigned as finance minister and went into private practice, briefly owning a travel agency for a while.

Dennis was one of thirteen former officials of the Tolbert government, executed in the aftermath of the April 12, 1980 coup.

Ambassador Dennis died in October 2008 at the age of 82. He previously worked as Chief of Mission in the UK. Dr. Clarke is still around.

Forty years after the deposit, many are wondering why no attempt to withdraw has been made until now.

This was confirmed by the NCA recently when it noticed a suspicious activity on the account. "The bank account had been internally investigated and suspended after an individual had tried to set up a new account and move the money, explaining that it was to be paid to various charities. Since then, no one had attempted to touch the money. The company behind the account was incorporated in Liberia, West Africa, in the 1970s and was purportedly set up to operate large container ships for an international shipping company."

Further complicating Liberia's quest to recouping the money is its ability to prove to the NCA that the beneficiary owners were criminals by corruption, bribery, tax evasion or whether the owners were politically exposed person.

In doing so, the GOL would have to show records that Albatross was indicted or being prosecuted by GOL for financial crimes. Thus, the SG Cephus letter indicating that the company is on a wanted list by Liberia. The source says, anyone of these proven can see the repatriation of the money.

Even if the GOL can prove such, challenges remain.

Most of the banks that operated in Liberia in the 70s like Citibank, are no longer in Liberia except LBDI. At the time universally strong laws governing banks were not in place and most banks in Liberia are new and their records have search without any trace.

Additionally, ITC was replaced by LISCR but there is no paper trail for offshore registry.

One official said Tuesday, the current registry, the Liberia International Shipping Registry, in Virginia office could help but do not give information out easily.

The source explained that obtaining five years record keeping for financial institution is a challenge and the the current Liberia Buisness Registry was only recently established. In the 70's article of incorporation was done at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but most of those documents have been destroyed due to the civil war, complicating Liberia's quest to establish proof.

The best options for Liberia, one source explained, is to ask the NCA through the British Government for some of the money to specifically strengthen Liberian institutions - FIU,GAC,LACC - that fight financial crimes and make a strong commitment that the money will be used for the intended purpose could be named. "A strong case will give Liberia some since proving the above will be difficult," the source concluded.

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